Reading: Identifying Ethical Issues

Identifying Ethical Issues

Make no mistake about it: When you enter the business world, you’ll find yourself in situations in which you’ll have to choose the appropriate behavior. How, for example, would you answer questions like the following?

  • Is it OK to accept a pair of sports tickets from a supplier?
  • Can I buy office supplies from my brother-in-law?
  • Is it appropriate to donate company funds to my local community center?
  • If I find out that a friend is about to be fired, can I warn her?
  • Will I have to lie about the quality of the goods I’m selling?
  • Can I take personal e-mails and phone calls at work?
  • What do I do if I discover that a coworker is committing fraud?

Obviously, the types of situations are numerous and varied. Fortunately, we can break them down into a few basic categories: bribes, conflicts of interest, conflicts of loyalty, and issues of honesty and integrity. Let’s look a little more closely at each of these categories.

Bribes vs. Gifts

It’s not uncommon in business to give and receive small gifts of appreciation. But when is a gift unacceptable? When is it really a bribe? If it’s OK to give a bottle of wine to a corporate client during the holidays, is it OK to give a case of wine? If your company is trying to get a big contract, is it appropriate to send a gift to the key decision maker? If it’s all right to invite a business acquaintance to dinner or to a ball game, is it also all right to offer the same person a fully paid weekend getaway?

There’s often a fine line between a gift and a bribe. The questions that we’ve just asked, however, may help in drawing it, because they raise key issues in determining how a gesture should be interpreted: the cost of the item, the timing of the gift, the type of gift, and the connection between the giver and the receiver. If you’re on the receiving end, it’s a good idea to refuse any item that’s overly generous or given for the purpose of influencing a decision. But because accepting even small gifts may violate company rules, the best advice is to check on company policy.

JCPenney’s “Statement of Business Ethics,” for instance, states that employees can’t accept any cash gifts or any noncash gifts except those that have a value below $50 and that are generally used by the giver for promotional purposes. Employees can attend paid-for business functions, but other forms of entertainment, such as sports events and golf outings, can be accepted only if it’s practical for the Penney’s employee to reciprocate. Trips of several days can’t be accepted under any circumstances. (JCPenney Co. “Statement of Business Ethics for Associates and Officers: The ‘Spirit’ of This Statement,” accessed April 24, 2006).

Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest occur when individuals must choose between taking actions that promote their personal interests over the interests of others or taking actions that don’t. A conflict can exist, for example, when an employee’s own interests interfere with, or have the potential to interfere with, the best interests of the company’s stakeholders (management, customers, owners). Let’s say that you work for a company with a contract to cater events at your college and that your uncle owns a local bakery. Obviously, this situation could create a conflict of interest (or at least give the appearance of one—which, by the way, is a problem in itself). When you’re called on to furnish desserts for a luncheon, you might be tempted to throw some business your uncle’s way even if it’s not in the best interest of the catering company that you work for.

What should you do? You should probably disclose the connection to your boss, who can then arrange things so that your personal interests don’t conflict with the company’s. You may, for example, agree that if you’re assigned to order products like those that your uncle makes, you’re obligated to find another supplier. Or your boss may make sure that someone else orders bakery products.

The same principle holds that an employee shouldn’t use private information about an employer for personal financial benefit. Say that you learn from a coworker at your pharmaceutical company that one of its most profitable drugs will be pulled off the market because of dangerous side effects. The recall will severely hurt the company’s financial performance and cause its stock price to plummet. Before the news becomes public, you sell all the stock you own in the company. What you’ve done isn’t merely unethical: It’s called insider trading, it’s illegal, and you could go to jail for it.

Conflicts of Loyalty

Sometimes you find yourself in a bind between being loyal either to your employer or to a friend or family member. Perhaps you just learned that a coworker, a friend of yours, is about to be downsized out of his job. You also happen to know that he and his wife are getting ready to make a deposit on a house near the company headquarters. From a work standpoint, you know that you shouldn’t divulge the information. From a friendship standpoint, though, you feel it’s your duty to tell your friend. Wouldn’t he tell you if the situation were reversed? So what do you do? As tempting as it is to be loyal to your friend, you shouldn’t. As an employee, your primary responsibility is to your employer. You might be able to soften your dilemma by convincing a manager with the appropriate authority to tell your friend the bad news before he puts down his deposit.

Issues of Honesty and Integrity

Master investor Warren Buffet once told a group of business students the following:

I cannot tell you that honesty is the best policy. I can’t tell you that if you behave with perfect honesty and integrity somebody somewhere won’t behave the other way and make more money. But honesty is a good policy. You’ll do fine, you’ll sleep well at night, and you’ll feel good about the example you are setting for your coworkers and the other people who care about you.

Quoted by Adrian Gostick and Dana Telford, The Integrity Advantage (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2003), 103.

If you work for a company that settles for its employees merely obeying the law and following a few internal regulations, you might think about moving on. If you’re being asked to deceive customers about the quality or value of your product, you’re in an ethically unhealthy environment.

Think about this story:

A chef put two frogs in a pot of warm soup water. The first frog smelled the onions, recognized the danger, and immediately jumped out. The second frog hesitated: The water felt good, and he decided to stay and relax for a minute. After all, he could always jump out when things got too hot (so to speak). As the water got hotter, however, the frog adapted to it, hardly noticing the change. Before long, of course, he was the main ingredient in frog-leg soup.

Adapted from Adrian Gostick and Dana Telford, The Integrity Advantage (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2003), 16.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Don’t sit around in an ethically toxic environment and lose your integrity a little at a time; get out before the water gets too hot and your options have evaporated.


  • When you enter the business world, you’ll find yourself in situations in which you’ll have to choose the appropriate behavior.
  • You’ll need to know how to distinguish a bribe from an acceptable gift.
  • You’ll encounter situations that give rise to a conflict of interest—situations in which you’ll have to choose between taking action that promotes your personal interest and action that favors the interest of others.
  • Sometimes you’ll be required to choose between loyalty to your employer and loyalty to a friend or family member.
  • In business, as in all aspects of your life, you should act with honesty and integrity.


Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in this section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.